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NFL Playoffs: Turnover Margin

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/22/2006

Win the turnover battle, you win the game and probably cover! In theory, it makes a lot of sense. However, it's not easy to gauge beforehand who is going to win the turnover battle. And successful handicapping is about predicting and projecting likely occurrences.

Look at the opening week of the playoffs. The Bengals led the AFC with an outstanding +25 turnover differential. Whatever defensive shortcomings Cincinnati had, they helped make up for it with an aggressive, ball-hawking defense that forced turnovers. However, in the first playoff game, the Steelers won the TO battle against Cincy 2-0, with a 31-17 win and cover. Last week, the Redskins won the turnover battle 3-0 in their game at Seattle. That's often enough of an edge needed to win. Not only didn't the Redskins win, they couldn't even cover as a +9 dog in Seattle's 20-10 victory.

Turnovers do so much to change the complexion of a game. Never was that so evident than in last week's game between Denver and New England. The Patriots had a significant edge in total yards, but 5 turnovers killed them. Leading 3-0 inside the two minute warning, the Patriots were driving and had all the momentum. They had lost much of the field position battle, but had won the TO edge (1-0) to that point and were seemingly in command of the game. In the blink of an eye, RB Kevin Faulk fumbled and Denver scored (with the help of a pass interference penalty in the end zone). The Patriots fumbled the ensuing kickoff and it was suddenly Denver 10-3 at the half. CB Champ Bailey's 100-yard interception return in the third quarter pretty much iced the game too.

Turnovers were the story in that game, a Denver win and cover. Notice that coming into the contest, the Broncos were a stellar +18 in turnover margin for the season, second only to Cincy in the AFC. They have been opportunistic all season. The Patriots had been strong in turnover margin in 2003 and 2004, but this season they were minus-5, a significant drop in TO production. And that Achilles' heal is a big reason they are watching the rest of the postseason instead of going for three Super Bowl titles in a row.

Again, it's not always easy to predict either. Last week, the Colts (+11 TO edge) took on the Steelers (+7 TO edge). Indy won the turnover battle 2-0 at home. On paper, that looks like a significant edge for the Colts, yet they not only failed to cover as a huge favorite, they lost the game, 21-18. Where and when those turnovers take place is just as significant, and impossible to predict. No doubt Jerome Bettis would be the sports goat of the new century had the Colts returned that fumble 99-yards for a TD in the final minute, like they came very close to doing!

As for this weekend's games, the Broncos are +18 in TO margin, the Steelers +7. In the NFC, the Panthers are +12, the Seahawks are +9. It is obvious that teams don't get this far in the playoffs without a positive TO margin. And Washington's minus-4 TO margin was the worst of the NFC playoff teams, and they are out of it. A lot of folks wondered why the talented Chargers didn't even make the playoffs, look no further than their poor minus-6 TO margin. Also, note that Carolina was tops in the NFC in positive turnover margin.

Looking ahead to the Super Bowl, the team that loses the TO battle has only won the game twice and only covered 5 times. My top play this weekend is in the AFC as my Playoff Total of the Year goes on Sunday. Enjoy the games, and don't be surprised if turnovers pop up as the deciding factor in what has thus far been a wild postseason!

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